PHNOM PENH: Tuk-tuks blaring pop music and flag-waving supporters of Cambodia’s embattled opposition led a rally yesterday for upcoming local elections, a bellwether for efforts to end the three-decade rule of strongman Hun Sen in next year’s national polls. The June 4 vote in more than 1,600 communes-administrative clusters of villages-will take Cambodia’s political temperature ahead of a general election in 2018 that is expected to go to the wire.
The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) are desperate to end Hun Sen’s rule, which they say is increasingly corrupt and repressive. But the party has been squarely outmaneuvered by the wily premier, who pegs himself as a stabilizing force in country still recovering from the horrors of the genocidal Khmer Rouge-era. His Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) draws the loyalty of many older Cambodians who fear political change could reopen historic wounds and dent a surging economy.
The rival CNRP has been hemmed in by legal cases since losing a disputed 2013 general election by a whisker. Addressing thousands of opposition supporters at a Phnom Penh rally yesterday, CNRP leader Kem Sokha said political change was on the horizon. “We have travelled through obstacles, rainstorms and lightning… but the CNRP has managed to survive and is stepping forward,” he said to cheers from the supporters, many with CNRP stickers on their cheeks. Kem Sokha took over the party leadership in March after long-time chief Sam Rainsy stood down amid a welter of legal cases that threatened to see the CNRP disbanded.
A strong showing by the CNRP in the June polls would send “shockwaves” through the ruling party, according to Sebastian Strangio, an expert on Cambodian politics and author of a recent book on the mercurial premier Hun Sen. “The CPP risks losing control of a lower level of government that they have controlled since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979,” he added. Conversely weak support for the CNRP could spell disaster in next year’s national vote.
The CPP held a rival rally in the capital, which also drew thousands. Hun Sen has overseen Cambodia’s transition from a country ravaged by genocide to one of the region’s fastest growing economies with a young, optimistic population. But many Cambodians have grown weary of endemic corruption and rights abuses while Hun Sen’s family and friends have also become hugely wealthy over the years.
Meanwhile, the US State Department called on the government to avoid threats and political intimidation as the two-week campaigning for the June 4 communal elections started yesterday with tens of thousands of supporters of Hun Sen’s ruling party and the main opposition party flooding the streets of the capital. A State Department spokeswoman for East Asia, Alicia Edwards, said in Washington that the US was urging the Cambodian government to “guarantee a political space free from threats or intimidation” and respect freedom of expression for all its citizens.
Cambodia’s defense minister has reportedly warned that the army will “smash the teeth” of anyone protesting a win by the ruling party. Speaking to supporters, opposition leader Kem Sokha said that his party would win the local and general elections but he appealed to party members to be patient. Although accused of violence and intimidation of opponents, Hun Sen could also take some credit for bringing modest economic growth and stability in a country devastated by the communist Khmer Rouge’s regime in the 1970s. – Agencies